Hot Take: Aristotle said, “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” Aristotle didn’t see Free State of Jones which has some great parts but falls short as a great movie.
For my money, Free State of Jones was the most promising film of the summer. At one point, my expectations were set way too high. Fortunately, before seeing it, the first batch of reviews were mixed and brought down my expectations a little. You can’t blame me for getting excited though. Matthew McConaughey almost always delivers a strong performance (and does again in Free State of Jones). Writer/director Gary Ross also delivers more hits than misses and when he misses — The Flintstones, Mr. Baseball — no one is too surprised nor are the stakes particularly high.
For the most part, Ross hits with Free State of Jones. The story of Newt Knight, a Southern farmer who leads an armed rebellion against the Confederacy during the Civil War is an intriguing (and almost true) one. McConaughey shines as the defiant and disgruntled deserter who leads an uprising of escaped slaves and fellow deserters in guerilla warfare against thieving Confederate forces. Basically, he’s the Civil War’s version of Robin Hood with a little bit of William Wallace sprinkled in.
The film has a number of interesting subplots and supporting characters. While Ross may get criticism for his version of the truth, it’s hard to imagine not taking some artistic license with the film. For example, one of the subplots features Newt’s relationship with his estranged wife (Keri Russell) who leaves Newt after she tires of his rebellious behavior. While separated, Newt cozies up to a slave named Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and the two become romantically involved. Later in the film, Newt’s wife returns and the couple accept her and his son with open arms while Newt and Rachel continue to shack up and eventually have a child. The real Newt Knight was a little busier than the film’s version. Knight had nine children by his first wife and five by Rachel. When Rachel died in 1889, he had two more children by another woman — the daughter of Rachel whom she had by another man — which brought the number of Knight children to a whopping 16. (That’s 14 more than depicted in the film, if you’re scoring at home.)
The film’s downfall might be in trying to cover so much. The film covers the time period from 1862 to 1875. It follows Newt through the Civil War and into the period of Reconstruction following the war. It covers a lot of ground. It ends up biting off more than it can chew as the movie reaches its conclusion, you feel like it has more to say but ran out of time. At a run time of 2 hours and 19 minutes, you can see why the film wraps up despite that unfinished feeling as viewer fatigue begins to set in as the film enters that third hour. Again, Free State of Jones isn’t a bad movie but it is one that fails to live up to its potential.
“Spoiler Free” Pros
- Mahershala Ali
Outside of McConaughey, Ali turns in the strongest performance as Moses Washington, an escaped slave who helps Knight as he hides out in the swamp. Ali’s character develops throughout the film and is one of the more compelling subplots.
- The Unwashed Truth of the Post Civil War South
For those that think the Civil War meant the end to oppression in the South, Free State of Jones is a strong reminder that such a statement couldn’t be further from the truth.
“Spoiler Free” Cons
- A Better Third Act
It’s one thing for a film to have a dissatisfying ending. It’s a whole other issue if the dissatisfying ending feels rushed and poorly put together. The dissatisfying ending is organic as Free State of Jones follows the story through to a dark yet often unspoken time in our country. The rushed and poorly packaged part is not acceptable though.